Chase Winovich

Patriots Point/Counterpoint: Who will lead the team in sacks in 2019?

Patriots Point/Counterpoint: Who will lead the team in sacks in 2019?

Every Friday during the NFL season, Tom E. Curran & Phil Perry will go head-to-head and offer their own takes on a Patriots or NFL-related question. They kick things off today with a question about what's expected to be a dominant New England defense:

WHO WILL LEAD THE 2019 PATRIOTS IN SACKS?

As a general rule, the Patriots don’t roll up high sack totals. They had 30 sacks as a team in 2018, second-lowest in the NFL.

They haven’t had a player register double-digit sacks since Chandler Jones had 12.5 in 2015. Trey Flowers led them the past three seasons with modest totals of 7.5, 6.5 and 7.0. It’s a scheme thing.

The Patriots have been less inclined to bring pressures (five rushers) or blitzes (six or more) to get mismatch numbers up front. They don’t want their coverage guys left exposed.

They also prefer bringing controlled pressure with their front working in concert to keep the quarterback walled off from scrambling or rolling out of the pocket.

But the success they had bringing pressure in the 2018 postseason and some of the talent they have up front may mean a philosophical alteration in 2019. The Patriots are going to get after quarterbacks.

And a rookie shall lead them. Chase Winovich, third-rounder from Michigan, will lead the team in sacks this season with 9.5.

All preseason stats come with the asterisk that they were compiled in August but in three games, Winovich had 2.5 sacks, 12 pressures and a 36.7 pass rush win rate. Winovich opened the eyes of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin who compared Winovich to his own pass-rush nuisance T.J. Watt, saying, “(Watt) was mature beyond his years in terms of his skills relative to his position. His hand usage, his awareness in terms of his rush. His overall in-game awareness. His motor. He had a lot of positive attributes."

This year, you’ll see the same from Winovich, who stands to benefit from the presence of Michael Bennett who will probably get the bulk of the blocking attention. With Flowers gone, somebody has to pick up the slack. It will be Winovich.

Sometimes the obvious answer is the right one. 

It’s obvious that Chase Winovich is a legitimate NFL talent. It’s obvious that the Patriots — who’ve loaded up on athletic outside linebacker types — have a variety of pass-rushers to deploy on third down. But, to me, the obvious answer to this question is Michael Bennett. 

The Patriots replaced their sack leader of the last three years, Trey Flowers, with someone who’s exceeded Flowers’ career-high in sacks in five of the last seven seasons. Save for 2014 — when Bennett was the most disruptive player on the best defense in football — and 2016, he’s had at least 8.5 sacks every season since 2012. 

Bennett might not be as long or as stout at the point of attack as Flowers. He might not be as sturdy against the run game. But he looks like a better pass-rusher, even at this stage in his career, using his superior quickness off the line to get blockers off-balance, then attacking them with well-refined moves to win. 

Expect to see Bennett rush off the edge (as he did in Philadelphia) as well as from the interior (as he did in Seattle) and find success from both spots. Where I believe he’ll be particularly effective is when lined up as a zero-technique nose tackle — right over the center — in New England’s “amoeba” fronts. In obvious passing situations, the Patriots will go to Bennett as the lone down-lineman on the line of scrimmage and then surround him with wandering stand-up pass-rushers. 

The effect? Confusion on the offensive line. Who’s rushing? Who’s dropping into coverage? It created chaos for the Patriots late last season and helped create one-on-ones at the line. At times, with a disoriented lineman, there will be a blocker blocking air while someone tries to handle a talented rusher solo. If that happens with Bennett, where he’s lined up on less athletic centers, he’ll win those battles more often than not. 

I could see Winovich making a big impact as a rusher. Same goes for Kyle Van Noy, who’ll play primarily off the edge. But those players will be rotated a bit. Jamie Collins, Shilique Calhoun and John Simon will factor into the mix at that position, as could Dont’a Hightower. And those players will he asked to drop into coverage occasionally. Expect Bennett out there — and only getting up the field — for most third downs. 

More opportunity, more pass-rush talent than the Patriots have had in a while. That should lead to Bennett pacing this group when it comes to sacks. 

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Steelers coach Mike Tomlin gushes over Patriots rookie Chase Winovich

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin gushes over Patriots rookie Chase Winovich

Chase Winovich grew up not far from Pittsburgh, and on Sunday he'll make his NFL debut for the New England Patriots against the Steelers.

Winovich would've been a great fit for the Steelers defense entering the 2019 NFL Draft, but Pittsburgh decided to select his University of Michigan teammate Devin Bush in the first round. Winovich fell all the way to the third round, where the Patriots took him.

The energetic edge rusher had a very impressive preseason, tallying 2.5 sacks and 11 tackles through four games. He also earned himself a place on Pro Football Focus' preseason All Rookie team

Winovich should feature quite a bit Sunday night when the Patriots host the Steelers for a Week 1 matchup at Gillette Stadium, and Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin is well aware of the Michigan product's talent.

“He’s had an awesome preseason,” Tomlin told reporters Tuesday. “I really have a lot of respect for him. Through draft preparation I saw a lot of him. He’s a quality edge rusher." 

Tomlin later added: "(Winovich) just had a lot of traits really that were similar to (T.J.) Watt. He was mature beyond his years in terms of his skills relative to his position. His hand usage, his awareness in terms of his rush. His overall in-game awareness. His motor. He had a lot of positive attributes.”

The Patriots had a lackluster pass rush last season, finishing with the second-fewest sacks of any team. The additions of Winovich and veteran defensive lineman Michael Bennett should help improve the Patriots' pass rush in 2019, and putting pressure on the quarterback will be crucial Sunday against Ben Roethlisberger. He's the last quarterback to beat the Patriots and led the league in passing yards last season.

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Chase Winovich grateful for Tom Brady's haircut during preseason finale

Chase Winovich grateful for Tom Brady's haircut during preseason finale

Tom Brady gave Chase Winovich a mini-haircut during the Patriots' final preseason game, and the rookie linebacker shared his unique perspective of that moment. 

Brady only cut off a few hairs from Winovich's blonde locks instead of the whole thing, so the third round pick expressed how fun it was to take in a football game while the G.O.A.T. gave him a trim. 

“I got to watch the Patriots on the sideline while getting my haircut by Tom Brady," Winovich said. "That’s an experience.

"I think a lot of people would pay a lot of money to have Tom as a barber. Luckily, I had that option for free."

It'd be interesting to see just how much Patriots fans would pay to have Brady cut their hair. That would be a weird charity event, but knowing Boston fans, I'm sure it would raise a lot of money. 

Winovich may have to let Brady cut off most of his hair now that he's on the 53-man roster, but maybe the six-time Super Bowl champ will take it easy on him. Winovich has mentioned his hair to be a "source of pride and strength."

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